GREENVILLE — Dave Shellhaas has been doing taxidermy for 30 years. He started learning the craft in 1987 or ‘88.
“I do a lot of hunting and fishing. I had my first deer head mounted, and I thought, ‘I should learn to do this myself,’” Shellhaas said.
At first Shellhaas only worked on his own trophies, but eventually he started doing them for family and friends. And things just grew from there.
“Word spread, and I started doing more. One thing led to another, and a hobby became a part-time business,” Shellhaas said.
Shellhaas works full-time as a Curriculum Director at Midwest Educational Service Center in Sidney, and runs his taxidermy business out of a workshop adjacent to his home. Most of that business comes in during hunting and fishing season in the spring and fall.
When Shellhaas receives a deer head to be mounted, he removes the hide, cutting carefully around the eyes, nose and mouth, then scrapes away any remaining tissue from the underside of the skin, salts it, and tumble-dries it in a machine filled with sawdust to get rid of any remaining moisture. Once all that is finished, he has the hide chemically treated, preserving it permanently.
“It’s like the leather in a leather coat,” Shellhaas said. “Only it’s leather with hair on it.”
In fact, the word “taxidermy” actually means “moving skin,” and that, according to Shellhaas, is most of what he does when mounting deer. Once the hide has been preserved, he paints the eyes and snout to restore whatever detail has been lost, then sews it onto a styrofoam form shaped like the head and neck of a deer.
“The skin, part of the skull, and the antlers are the only thing that’s real,” Shellhaas said.
Other creatures can be more complicated, however. Fish, for instance, have to be coated with a clear sealer to preserve the scales, then airbrushed to restore color and detail. Afterward, a glossy coat is added to make the fish appear wet.
Some even elect to have domestic animals such as dogs, cats and goldfish preserved. Shellhaas has done a few of these, but said he largely likes to avoid working on pets.
“In some parts of the country that’s big business,” Shellhaas said, “but pets have personality, and it’s hard to reproduce personality. When hunting, you see something you shot briefly. But you see a pet for years and years.”
Animals like deer can be restored much more convincingly, which is one of Shellhaas’ favorite parts of the job.
“It’s nice to kind of bring them back to life,” Shellhaas said.
The most rewarding work Shellhaas does, however, is the work he does for kids.
“I do a lot of first deer,” Shellhaas said. “I like to see the kids pick it up, and the way their eyes light up, and know they’re gonna have that on their wall for the rest of their life.”
In addition to taxidermy, Shellhaas and his brother Steve have published a series of hunting, fishing, and sport shooting-themed educational books for children, available on Amazon.com under the title “Outdoor IQ.”
Ultimately, Shellhaas believes it’s important to pass on the art of taxidermy to younger generations.
“It’s an art, like painting, sculpting, or anything else,” Shellhaas said. “And if we don’t have anyone to do it, it’ll be a dying art. Preserving these animals is an important thing for a lot of people, so there’s gotta be somebody to do it.”
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